FICTION: In this furious and tender novel, a young African girl makes her way to America.
In “We Need New Names,” NoViolet Bulawayo has written an anguished and angry tale of the African Diaspora. The question it asks is not why things fall apart, but what are the costs of fleeing when it does.
As the book opens, Darling, its heroine, is 10 years old and living in Paradise, one of the worst slums in an unnamed African country.
Every day, Darling leaves Paradise to traipse around the city’s nicer neighborhoods in a pack of children, stealing guavas, defecating on trash heaps. The kids’ names give you a clue of how wanted they are at home.
There’s a Bastard and Godknows. One girl is pregnant at 11. They wear cast-off T-shirts given to them by aid workers, advertising brands they can’t afford and colleges they’ll never attend. Poignantly, they know their dreams of escape are lined with tin.
“Well, go, go to that America and work in nursing homes,” Bastard teases Darling, when she brags of an aunt living in the United States. “Right now she is busy cleaning kaka off of some wrinkled old man.”
Chapter by chapter, Bulawayo ticks off the issues that a state-of-the-nation novel by an African should cover — the hypocrisies of the church, elections, the AIDS epidemic, political violence — and beats some subtlety back into them with the hard true sound of Darling’s voice.
Bulawayo isn’t painting by numbers, but doing something rather more wicked and knowing. She is taking all the issues flattened out by aid appeals and rhetoric and weaving a story around them that defies you to resent Darling for her departure for America.
In the book’s second half, Darling moves to live with her aunt in “Destroyed Michygen,” or Detroit. Only it, too, is circling the drain.
As Darling comets toward adulthood, her voice becomes more elastic and American. Cynical, rather than merely skeptical. “I know her crazy boyfriend beat her up,” she gibes of Rihanna, “but I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis, like it was the [expletive] Sudan.”
Forty years ago this year, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote his country’s first modern novel in Gikuyu, “Devil on the Cross,” on scraps of toilet paper while he was in prison.
He believed African novelists should renounce colonial tongues and relearn their native languages. He has a powerful political point.
Still, there is another way to tell an African story, and Bulawayo has done it here with “We Need New Names,” recently named to the Man Booker longlist. With fury and tenderness, she has made a linguistic bridge between here and there, a journey her heroine charts in this phenomenal tale with the gallows humor of a girl who knows how far down it is when things fall apart.
John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist,” forthcoming in October from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.